Who Really Won the Centennial Olympics

Medals by Pop: The ranking changes if you adjust for population and for type of medals won. In each case the winner is a definite surprise.

by David K. Foot

Reprinted from the Globe & Mail, August 6, 1996.

The centennial Olympic Games are now history. With its haul of 101 medals, the host country the United States claimed victory. Not only did it win the most medals, but it also won the most gold medals. So the Americans believe their claim of victory is solidly based.

But the U.S. is now the third-largest country in the world. With its population of 265 million, it is surpassed only by China (1,218 million) and India (905 million). Given the large population base from which to choose its athletes, it is not surprising that it won so many medals.

Making sensible use of demographic data, a mid-Olympic editorial in this newspaper (Our Weight in Gold - July 31) awarded the games to Australia on a population-adjusted basis. The editorial concluded that these results came out looking better for Canada and much worse for the U.S. The U.S. population is almost nine times larger than Canada's; so, with similar opportunities for the athletes, the U.S. should win nine times as many medals as Canada. Yet the U.S. total was only 4 1/2 times the Canadian total. On a per-capita basis, Canada, with its 0.73 medals per million people, outclassed the United States with only 0.38 medals per million people. We were almost twice as good!

Subsequent letters to the editor correctly castigated the editors for leaving New Zealand off the list. But this was not the only relevant omission. By the time the Games ended on Sunday, a number of small countries had done really well at the Olympics. Jamaica, with a population of only 2.6 million, generated six medals, and Norway, with a population (4.4 million) only slightly larger than New Zealand's (3.6 million), won seven medals, one more than New Zealand.

So who really won the centennial Olympics on a population-adjusted basis? The winners were the tiny countries of Tonga and the Bahamas! Their one silver medal each came from populations of approximately 0.1 million and 0.3 million people respectively, for ratios of 10 and 3.3 medals per million. They were followed by Jamaica (2.31), Cuba (2.27), Australia (2.24), Hungary (2.06), Bulgaria (1.79), New Zealand (1.67), Norway (1.59) and Trinidad and Tobago (1.54). Canada ranked 24th, well ahead of the United States, which ranked 41st.

Of course, as one letter to the editor argued, the quality of medals is relevant in determining a country's ranking. With a few exceptions, such as boxing, where two bronze medals are awarded, there are an equal number of gold, silver and bronze medals to be won. The U.S., like Russia, won more gold than silver and more silver than bronze. Germany, like Australia, had more bronze than silver or gold. Canada won more silver than bronze or gold.

Adjusting for medal quality by weighting gold, silver and bronze (1.5, 1 and 0.5 respectively) changes the picture. Cuba (2.32) now moves into third place behind Tonga (10.0) and the Bahamas (3.33), followed by Jamaica (2.12) and New Zealand (1.94), which is now ahead of Hungary (1.91), Australia (1.86) and Bulgaria (1.67). Norway (1.48), together with the new addition of Denmark (1.44), completes the top 10 quality-medal winners. Canada slides to 25th, while the U.S. ranking increases to 37th. Once again, Canada's per-capita points (0.65) are more than 50 per cent better than the United States', and Cuba's are more than 5 1/2 times better.

So what is it about those Oceanic and Caribbean nations that makes them winners? Certainly their favourable climates and sports-loving populations make them idea for Olympic success. But is this enough? Perhaps their populations are in the right age groups compared with North America and Europe.

In North America, 22 per cent of the population is under age 15 and 13 per cent is over age 64. Europe is older, with 19 and 14 per cent respectively, and Oceania (Central and South Pacific) is younger with 26 and 10 per cent. Asia is younger still with 32 and 5 per cent in these age categories, while Latin American and the Caribbean have 35 and 5 per cent young and seniors. Africa is the youngest region of the world with 44 per cent under age 15 and 3 per cent over age 64.

Removing the young and the seniors from the per-capita calculations does not change the rankings substantially, but there are some subtle differences. In the medals ranking, Cuba drops to fifth behind Australia, while in the points ranking (i.e. adjusted for medal quality) Cuba drops to fourth behind Jamaica. Also, Namibia jumps into ninth place in the points ranking. Canada remains entrenched in 24th place in per-capita medals, but slides to 27th in per-capita points.

Perhaps all these calculations favour small countries, since one excellent athlete can win multiple medals for a small nation. Michelle Smith accounted for all four of Ireland's medals. Frank Fredericks of Namibia and Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago each accounted for his nation's two medals. Of the countries with at least as large a population as Canada's 30 million, the population-adjusted winner was Germany. Canada was second, followed by France, Italy and South Korea. Ukraine, Poland, Spain, Russia and the U.S. round out the top 10, the order depending on whether medal quality is considered. Notable by their absence are the Japanese and Chinese.

In the end, despite laudable use of demographic data, neither the editors (who picked Australia) nor the readers (who identified New Zealand) correctly identified the centennial Olympic winners. On a population-adjusted basis, Tonga, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Cuba outpaced Australia and New Zealand. Canada was twice as good as the U.S. and the Cubans over five times better than the Americans. As for the victory claim of the host country, the U.S. - perhaps that will have to wait until it competes with the Aussies on their own turf at the next Olympiad four years hence.

Per capita medal ranking - Top 25 medal ranking nations at the Atlanta Olympic Games, by population.
CountryTotal MedalsPopulation (in millions)Medals/Population
New Zealand63.61.6667
Trinidad & Tobago 21.31.5385
Czech Republic1110.31.0680

David K. Foot is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the Boom, Bust & Echo books.